Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul forward Nikola Kalinic had a pair of what many would consider a career-games at last year’s Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four, playing a vital role in helping Fenerbahce win a historic EuroLeague title. This season, Kalinic has slowly returned to playing at full strength after recovering from a pair of injuries. Kalinic has made just six EuroLeague appearance this season, but just played a season-high 23 minutes in the Round 23 win over AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan. Having him back for the most important stretch of the season is a big boost for Fenerbahce’s aspirations to defend its crown.
It was a disk herniation that kept him sidelined throughout the summer and for the first 12 games of this EuroLeague campaign before an ankle injury in Round 14 kept him out for another five weeks. This is Kalinic’s fourth EuroLeague season and he had missed only two games in the previous three campaigns. Ever since he learned of the severity of his back injury last summer, Kalinic has bombarded doctors with questions of how, why, and what's next on his road to recovery.
"You can ask the doctors how much I bored them with different questions, and listened to their explanations," Kalinic said. The Fenerbahce forward explained that he is not your usual athlete patient. "I am not sure how much the doctors were enjoying it, but it is what interests me, and I really wanted to know what happened to me. I don’t like to hear the answers like 'do it because you have to', or 'because that’s how the things are done'. Those are clichés. I want to know what is the reason for doing a certain exercise or taking medication. What is the process, in which way this will help me?"
A big part of the reason for his interest lies in the fact that Kalinic has long had an affinity for medicine. "Studying medicine has always been my interest," he said. "Growing up and also in high school, I was looking for challenges. I was always trying to find challenges and from what I have seen and heard from friends, only a select group can even enroll, let alone finish medical school. Also, the feeling of helping others, the knowledge you get there, plus all the prestige, respectability and responsibility the occupation of a doctor carries with it, it certainly always attracted me."
This is not just talk, but rather a serious desire. One of the most accomplished young players in the game, Kalinic at one time had to decide between pursuing one dream - playing professional basketball - or pursuing another –becoming a doctor. He was doing so well in high school that some were taken by surprise when he opted for basketball over pursuing a degree.
"I even enrolled into university, I tried to attend classes and play basketball professionally, however, I managed only two or three months”, Kalinic recalled. He followed his older brother Uros and enrolled with a major in Environmental Engineering at the Faculty of Technical Sciences at Novi Sad University. "I started to break apart, losing it both on the basketball court and in classes. It was not how I imagined it would be. I was falling behind and I was not among the best, which was unlike what I was used to, so I made a decision to stay with basketball, while I am young, while I can carry on with it. And if it would not work, I would still not be too old to go back to school and take a different path."
Basketball worked out beyond his dreams. Kalinic made huge strides right away. He started making name for himself at age 21 in the EuroCup during the 2013-14 season. After winning a silver medal with the Serbian national team at the 2014 FIBA World Cup, Kalinic made his EuroLeague debut with Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade a couple of months before turning 23. After a year with Zvezda, he moved to Fenerbahce where he is now in his third season. Now he is a reigning EuroLeague champion and a reigning silver medalist from the 2016 Rio Olympics, in addition to being the reigning World Cup runner-up, too.
With the focus on his career, one would not expect Kalinic to give much thought to studying, but he said he still thinks about it often. That comes from the way he, his brother Uros – a professional water polo player – and sister Mina, who is a former volleyball player, were brought up. "We were raised in the spirit of sports and education, so all three of us were excellent in schools, too," he said.
Their mother Dragica is a math teacher who played volleyball and father Zoran is a former table-tennis great with more than dozen medals from major international championships. Their children were all straight-A students throughout middle school and honor students in high school.
“It was logical that we pursue higher education. My brother and sister were more responsible than me, and finished their degrees before I did,” Nikola said.
To make it perfectly clear, Nikola already has a university degree in sports management, which he accomplished recently, all of it in addition to his highly successful basketball career. “I did finish college in the meantime, with a degree in sports management. I only managed to get it this year and I have to say with great understanding from the Faculty for Sports and Tourism. It was the first time I met such understanding. I assume the accomplishments in my basketball career probably helped to get a few extended deadlines and to attend classes when I could and when my schedule allowed, which I have to thank them for… However, medical school, or even an environmental engineering degree, would be something that would make me happy," he said before adding with a smile: "And make my mother happy, too."
Whether that is realistic is another matter and Kalinic knows it is reasonable to wonder if he will or will not be able to fulfill that dream. But the idea certainly still exists.
"Right now, I do not have the time needed to devote to it, but when I will be 30-something, finished with basketball and have rested for a few months, soon will come the time when I will get bored," Kalinic admitted. "Basketball is phenomenal while it lasts, however, once it will be done, I have to find something that I will spend my days doing… Of course, it is harder to get back to university once you get out of the studying routines, spending days and nights studying a book, but it is definitely more than possible. That’s what the big challenges and big goals are all about. I still hope I will get to do it, and that would be a wonderful thing in my life."